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What if Henry Ford went to HBS?

After the first month of HBS, I must admit the most insightful comment I heard came as the answer to a Modern Capitalism question about whether HBS should have a monument to Henry Ford or Alfred Sloan.

One classmate said Sloan, because geniuses like Henry Ford are born and managers like Alfred Sloan are trained. HBS, he reasoned, was a place that could train managers, but not create geniuses.

The answer is insightful, not only in the way it succinctly differentiated the two leaders, but also begs the question, what happens if you have a true genius that goes to HBS?

One would suspect Ford would get a 1 in TOM (and a lot of Sky Deck energizer bunny awards). He’d also probably get a 3 in everything else, hit the screen, and get drummed out of school. Socially, he’d never attend pub night, have few friends, and probably be viewed as a nutter. (Indeed, everyone in Modern Capitalism, other than maybe the 7-11 Japan guy, seemed to be a nutter, the product of a screwed up father/son relationship, or both).

After his unceremonious exit, Ford would start his business. Eventually, we’d write cases about his successes and failures, invite him back to school to address TOM class, and ask him to fund the next campus edifice.

The Ford question continued to bug me as my introvert tendencies drove me to reflect on our cohort’s first month.

As promised in the brochure, there is diversity. My section includes a pile of countries, the requisite number of bankers and consultants from prestigious firms, some people who have actually created value by making real stuff (instead of “adding value” through PowerPoint decks), several accomplished social entrepreneurs, a bona-fide rocket scientist, and even an expert on the marketing of tooth brushes.

Indeed, sitting in class is often a humbling experience, and I have realized that you can learn a lot by simply listening. Regardless of how much you think you know about a topic there is someone here who knows twice as much.

I don’t believe the admissions office has made an admissions mistake in my case, or any of my cohort mates. But, for me at least, that 2 looks mighty good right now.

The pleasant relief is that people are nice. Based on my experiences with some HBS grads in the workforce, I had the awful fear that we’d have many arrogant and hyper competitive folks. Thankfully, I have found most both friendly and equally humbled to be among such a talented group.

One hopes that the transformational experience we’ve been promised does not include the removal of these qualities, especially in how we relate to the outside world.

Still, while I have certainly met several future Sloans (albeit I can’t identify them, because as the Harbus picture of that fellow blowing a bubble showed, you never can tell who the really successful ones are going to be), I don’t think I have figured out if a future Ford goes here.

Perhaps the one in a million genius does not go to business school. Maybe she just goes and starts her business without the benefit of an MBA. Unlike the other disciplines, formal training might even stunt the creator of a new industry – because to create a new industry, you probably do have to be considered a nutter, at least at first.

My hypothesis, however, does not extend to the arts and sciences. Dinner with a buddy from college confirmed that at least a few geniuses must live across the river amongst the aspiring Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners that Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences seems to attract by the dozen.

My friend, undoubtedly the smartest person I’ve ever met, said that he is in awe of the intellect of some of his fellow graduate students in his PhD program. By the transitive property of admiration, then, what does that mean for me?

After a beer and a long discussion of our respective insecurities, we both agreed that the thought was oddly comforting – better to be mediocre at Harvard (you even can become President). But best, once one graduates, never to forget it.

February 12, 2001
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